Food additives are chemical substances added to food to enhance its flavour, appearance, texture, or other qualities. Some additives have been used for centuries. Natural substances to preserve food by pickling with vinegar, salting meat, or using sulfur dioxide in wines.
Toxicological tests on animals are used to determine the amount of the additive that is expected to be safe when consumed by humans. These amounts are usually an amount 100 times less than the maximum daily dose at which ‘no observable effects’ are produced by an additive consumed over the test animal’s lifetime.
Most food additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives. The long-term effects of consuming a combination of different additives are currently unknown.
Take a look at the ingredients label of just about any food in your kitchen and there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one food additive.
Some people are sensitive to particular food additives and demonstrate reactions like hives or diarrhoea. A number of additive substances have been associated with adverse health effects. These should be avoided, while others are said to be safe and can be consumed with minimal risk.
Types of food additives
The different types of food additive and their uses include:
- Anti-caking agents – to stop ingredients from becoming lumpy.
- Antioxidants – to prevent foods from oxidising, or going rancid.
- Artificial sweeteners – to increase sweetness.
- Emulsifiers – to stop fats from clotting together.
- Food acids – to maintain the right acid level.
- Colours – to enhance or add colour.
- Humectants – keep foods moist.
- Flavours – to add flavour.
- Flavour enhancers – to increase the power of a flavour.
- Foaming agents – to maintain uniform aeration of gases in foods.
- Mineral salts – to enhance texture and flavour.
- Preservatives – to stop microbes from multiplying and spoiling the food.
- Thickeners and vegetable gums – to enhance texture and consistency.
- Stabilisers and firming agents – to maintain even food dispersion.
- Flour treatment – to improves baking quality.
- Glazing agent – to improve the appearance and can protect food.
- Gelling agents – to alter the texture of foods through gel formation.
- Propellants – to help propel food from a container.v
- Raising agents – to increase the volume of food through the use of gases.
- Bulking agents – to increase the volume of food without major changes to its available energy.
Digestive disorders (diarrhoea and colic type pains), Nervous disorders (hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability), Respiratory problems (asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis), Skin problems (hives, itching, rashes and swelling).
The following are some of the most common food additives:
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a common food additive used to intensify and enhance the flavour of savoury dishes.
A variety of processed foods like frozen dinners, salty snacks and canned soups include MSG. It’s also often added to foods at restaurants and fast food places.
MSG is found naturally in parmesan cheese, sardines and tomato.
That being said, some people do have a sensitivity to MSG and may experience symptoms like headaches, sweating and numbness after eating a large amount. It has also been associated with weight gain.
Artificial Food Colouring
Artificial food colouring, found primarily in processed foods, is used to brighten and improve the appearance of everything from sweets to condiments.
There have been many concerns about potential health effects. Specific food dyes like Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 have been associated with allergic reactions in some people. It has also been reported to promote hyperactivity in children. Concerns have also been raised about the potential cancer-causing effects of certain food dyes.
The dye Red 3, also known as erythrosine, has been shown to increase the risk of thyroid tumours in some animal studies, causing it to be replaced by Red 40 in most foods.
Sodium nitrite acts as a preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria while also adding a salty flavour and reddish-pink colour. Frequently found in processed meats.
When exposed to high heat and in the presence of amino acids, nitrites can turn into nitrosamine, a compound that can have many negative effects on health, associated with a higher risk of stomach cancer.
A higher intake of processed meats may be linked to a higher risk of colon, breast and bladder cancer.
Legumes, nuts, eggs and tempeh are just a few delicious high-protein foods that you can add to your diet in place of processed meats.
Guar gum is a long-chain carbohydrate used to thicken and bind foods. It’s widely used in the food industry and can be found in ice cream, salad dressings, sauces and soups.
Guar gum is high in fibre and has been associated with a number of health benefits. It has been shown to reduced symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as bloating and constipation, and help lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
A review of three studies also found that people who took guar gum along with a meal had increased feelings of fullness and ate fewer calories from snacking throughout the day.
Overconsumption can cause issues like obstruction of the oesophagus or small intestine. Also, mild symptoms like gas, bloating or cramps in some people.
Guar gum is generally considered safe in moderation.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn containing no useful vitamins and minerals. It’s frequently found in carbonated drinks, juice, sweets, breakfast cereals and snack foods.
It’s rich in a type of simple sugar called fructose, which can cause serious health issues when consumed in high amounts. Contributing nothing but calories to your diet it has been linked to weight gain and diabetes.
Fructose can trigger inflammation in the cells, believed to play a central role in many chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners are used in many diet foods and beverages to enhance sweetness while reducing calorie content.
Common types of artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium.
While certain types of artificial sweeteners like aspartame may cause headaches. Studies show that artificial sweeteners can aid in weight loss and help manage blood sugar levels.
Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan acts as a thickener, emulsifier and preservative in many different food products.
Common sources of carrageenan include almond milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, coffee creamers and dairy-free products like vegan cheese.
For decades, there have been concerns about the safety of this common food additive and its potential effects on health.
Exposure to carrageenan triggers inflammation and can increase levels of fasting blood sugar and glucose intolerance, especially when combined with a high-fat diet. It has been associated with the formation of intestinal ulcers and growths. One study also found that carrageenan contributed to an earlier relapse of ulcerative colitis.
Sodium benzoate is a preservative often added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices and condiments.
Studies have found:
- combining sodium benzoate with artificial food colouring increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old children.
- a higher intake of beverages containing sodium benzoate was associated with more symptoms of ADHD in 475 college students.
- combined with vitamin C, sodium benzoate can also be converted into benzene, a compound that may be associated with cancer development.
Carbonated beverages contain the highest concentration of benzene, and diet or sugar-free beverages are even more prone to benzene formation.
Avoid foods that contain ingredients like benzoic acid, benzene or benzoate, especially if combined with a source of vitamin C such as citric acid or ascorbic acid.
Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that has undergone hydrogenation, which increases shelf life and improves the consistency of products.
It can be found in many types of processed foods like baked goods, margarine, microwave popcorn and biscuits.
A number of potential health risks have been associated with trans fat intake, and the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even recently (2017) decided to revoke their GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status.
In particular, multiple studies have linked a higher intake of trans fats to inflammation, a higher risk of heart disease, and diabetes.
Cutting processed foods out of your diet is the easiest and most effective way to decrease your trans fat intake. Simple switches too, like using butter instead of margarine and olive oil or coconut oil instead of vegetable oils.
Xanthan gum is a common additive that’s used to thicken and stabilize many types of food such as salad dressings, soups, syrups and sauces.
This food additive has been associated with several health benefits. It’s sometimes used in gluten-free recipes to help improve the texture of foods.
Studies have found that
- consuming rice with added xanthan gum resulted in lower levels of blood sugar than consuming rice without it.
- eating xanthan gum for six weeks reduced levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, plus increased feelings of fullness.
Artificial flavours are chemicals designed to mimic the taste of other ingredients.
They can be used to imitate a variety of different flavours, from popcorn and caramel to fruit and beyond.
Animal studies have found that these synthetic flavours have some concerning effects on health.
- red blood cell production in rats was significantly reduced after they were fed artificial flavourings for just seven days.
- certain flavours like chocolate, biscuit and strawberry were also found to have a toxic effect on bone marrow cells.
- grape, plum and orange synthetic flavourings inhibit cell division and are toxic to bone marrow cells in mice.
Look for “chocolate” or “cocoa” on the ingredients label rather than “chocolate flavouring” or “artificial flavouring.”
Yeast extract, also called autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed yeast extract, is added to certain savoury foods like cheese, soy sauce and salty snacks to boost the flavour.
It’s made by combining sugar and yeast in a warm environment, then spinning it in a centrifuge and discarding the cell walls of the yeast.
Yeast extract is high in sodium and contains glutamate, which is a type of naturally occurring amino acid found in many foods.
Much like monosodium glutamate (MSG), eating foods with glutamate may cause symptoms like headaches, numbness and swelling in people who are sensitive to its effects.
Additionally, yeast extract is relatively high in sodium, with about 400 milligrams in each teaspoon (8 grams) which contributes to increased blood pressure, especially harmful to people who have high blood pressure.
While certain food additives have been linked to some pretty scary side effects, there are plenty of others that can be safely consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Make a habit of reading the ingredient labels when grocery shopping. Take control of your diet and determine what’s really being added to your favourite foods. While processed foods generally contain food additives. Foods like long-life milk, canned foods and frozen foods are all processed, yet may be without extra chemicals.
If you are unsure whether or not a product contains an additive, check the label. However, some listed ingredients may contain food additives without mentioning them on the label. For instance, ‘margarine’ might be a listed ingredient, and margarine contains food additives.
Additionally, try cutting back on processed and packaged foods and incorporating more fresh ingredients into your diet to minimize your intake of food additives.
People with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals found naturally in certain foods, such as nuts or shellfish.